Study Guide

The Book of Margery Kempe Themes

  • Isolation

    It's hard being Margery Kempe. In her "material girl" phase, she learns that loyal workers are hard to find: one sign of divine anger, and off they pop to find more stable employment. Her spiritual life hardly attracts company. Her emotional connection to the life and death of Christ causes real (and by real we mean loud) tears and other kinds of seemingly crazy behavior that either frightens people or gets their goat. It's a serious problem for Kempe, who seems to be an otherwise social creature. Jesus tells her that this isolation buys her greater merit in heaven, but in The Book of Margery Kempe, our heroine finds that friendlessness can be an expensive price to pay for it.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. In what ways does Kempe cope with the isolation and friendlessness she often faces over her lifetime?
    2. Which kinds of people are more likely to give Kempe a hard time about her peculiar behavior? Which are more accepting?
    3. Why is friendlessness or isolation particularly dangerous for Kempe, rather than simply emotionally damaging?
    4. In what ways is isolation necessary for Kempe's chosen life? In what ways is it difficult and damaging?

    Chew on This

    Although Kempe requires solitude to practice a contemplative life, her spiritual perfection also relies on interactions, both positive and negative, with other people.

    Kempe seems to have a difficult time convincing the English that she is, in fact, a holy woman. Foreigners and those of other religions seem to recognize her worth right away.

  • Suffering

    Think a life of contemplation keeps Margery Kempe from hard work and physical discomfort? Not a chance. In The Book of Margery Kempe, the practice of affective piety is all about emotional discomfort, whether she's celebrating a holy day in the church or encountering a man who reminds her of Jesus. The "gift" of tears and screaming also places puts Kempe's physical endurance to the test, making it difficult for her stand, or walk, or even breathe.

    Despite these difficulties, Kempe says she can't live "happily" without this direct and electric connection to the divine. When she's cut off in any way, her misery doubles. As they say in Sister Act: Nothin' you could say could tear this lady away from her God.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What is Kempe's philosophy on suffering? How does she view physical suffering viewed, as compared to emotional or spiritual suffering?
    2. What is the most painful moment for Kempe in the text, in your opinion?
    3. In what ways are suffering and happiness linked for Kempe?
    4. What are the sources of suffering for Kempe in this text?

    Chew on This

    Although Kempe seems to really dislike spiritual suffering (humiliation, temptations, absence of God), her experiences of physical illness seem to make her prefer spiritual rather than physical challenges.

    The greatest challenge to Kempe's spirituality comes when she must accept that there will always be some souls who must suffer eternal damnation.

  • Spirituality

    Campy Kempe practices something called affective piety, which is all about imaginatively entering into the life and suffering of Christ and his mother, Mary. There's usually a trigger in the physical world that sends Kempe into "recollections" of such moments—like visiting Mount Calvary in Jerusalem, or simply seeing an infant boy in his mother's arms. It's an intense experience, since this kind of spirituality deeply engages the emotions. It's also an isolating practice: either Kempe spends time in lonely contemplation, or she mixes with the public and gets her freak on public because of this spiritual communion.

    Either way, in The Book of Margery Kempe, the contemplative life is not is not for wimps: it brings real dangers and distress to Kempe, along with any spiritual benefit.

    Questions About Spirituality

    1. In what ways is Kempe's spiritual life unique? In what ways does it fit a particular model or type?
    2. Why is Kempe so attached to Jesus? Why does she feel more spiritual attraction to him than to, say, God the Father or the Holy Spirit?
    3. What is affective piety? How does it shape Kempe's spiritual practices and life?
    4. How do Kempe's interactions with other contemplatives and religious figures influence her own practices?

    Chew on This

    Kempe uses the lives and personalities of other female mystics to support her cause as she faces challenges from the patriarchy of the church.

    Kempe's attachment to Jesus's humanity shows that she has not progressed much spiritually; it isn't until she is "married" to God the Father that she matures in her faith.

  • Language and Communication

    Spoken language is pretty crucial in The Book of Margery Kempe, because guess what: like most women at the time, this lady could not read or write. (Which makes it all the more extraordinary that she's responsible for the first autobiography in English.) It wasn't uncommon for even men to be illiterate back then, but illiteracy could be a pretty big burden. We can see this through Kempe's eyes, especially when she thinks her story has been written and learns that the scribe bungled it, or when she's exiled from a good sermon because of her screaming.

    Kempe relies on the spoken word for spiritual development, direct communion with the divine, companionship with other holy people—and to save her life. It's Kempe's "good words" that get her out sticky situations and make her friends in high ecclesiastical places. Without this, she would probably just be a footnote in the heresy trials of history.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How would you characterize Kempe's conversations with Jesus? Are they surprising in any way?
    2. How is language a barrier to Kempe's spiritual development? In what ways is it a help?
    3. In what ways does Kempe's inability to read affect her interactions with the world around her? In what ways does it affect her spiritual life?
    4. In what ways does the fact that Kempe's experiences are mediated through a male scribe affect how we read and receive her work?

    Chew on This

    Although Kempe's communications with the divine use conventional language and images, the housewifely familiarity with which she chats with Jesus shows us a new way of thinking about God.

    Kempe's direct access to Christ and the saints is better than an education and a library card; she needs neither the approval of the male clergy nor the good will of a literate man to get her fill of holy communication and instruction.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    Because the heroine of The Book of Margery Kempe practices affective piety—a kind of spirituality in which she focuses on Christ's humanity and his mother's joys and sorrows—her responses are often emotional and tender. When she envisions Christ's suffering for her sins, her emotions ignite, and she feels sorrow and humility. This allows her to extend sympathy to almost anyone, even to sinners like herself. Though others often treat her with contempt and annoyance, Kempe is more than willing to forgive them and beg forgiveness for herself because she sees the world through the lens of Christ's life and suffering. She believes that no matter what she endures, it will never be more than what Christ undertook on her behalf.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Why does Kempe seek forgiveness from those who treat her badly?
    2. How does Kempe's type of spirituality help her feel compassion toward others?
    3. Why does Kempe have a hard time accepting that some souls will be damned? What is Jesus's response to this?
    4. In what ways is condemnation (of behaviors or spiritual errors) a compassionate response? Does Kempe ever condemn? For what purpose?

    Chew on This

    Kempe's participation in affective piety increases her sense of compassion for those around her, including the people who persecute her.

    Kempe's initial conversion experience is complicated by her inability to "sympathize" with Christ as fully as she does later in her life.

  • Memory and the Past

    Sure, The Book of Margery Kempe is an autobiography, but remembering the past isn't the only kind of memory you'll see on these pages. In this book, memorial behavior—things like participation in pilgrimages, Masses or processions—serves as an emotional and intellectual bridge to the life of Christ. Emotional triggers also summon religious memories, like when Kempe is slandered and immediately has an intense "memory" of Christ's crucifixion.

    Basically, Kempe constructs a spiritual life based on immersive participation in events long past. Everything she sees makes her thing of something that happened to Jesus—which in turn makes her cry. A lot. While her recollections of actions and relationships in her own life do exist in this narrative, they take a back seat to these complex interactions with a mystical past.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    • How does memory play a key role in Kempe's spiritual life?
    • In what ways is memory—especially verbal and visual memory—particularly important for someone like Kempe?
    • Which do you think is more important for Kempe in this narrative: her personal past, or a more "historic" one?
    • Why do you suppose Kempe only includes memories of one of her children in this narrative? Do you think it is significant that this memory is included in Book II, which was written later and added on to the bulk of her story?

    Chew on This

    Kempe uses memories that are not her own to enter more fully into her spiritual life.

    Kempe is not primarily interested in memories of her life as a wife or mother. Instead, she's all about "universal memories" of Christ's life and death as a method of explaining her way of life and philosophy.

  • Good versus Evil

    In the world of The Book of Margery Kempe, the struggle between good and evil is not obscure or philosophical. There is a devil, and there is a God. There are also demons that do the devil's dirty work, and they're active in everyone's life. Margery Kempe herself knows this firsthand, since she was once physically saved from the mouth of demons by the appearance of a surprisingly hot and handsome Jesus Christ. While this may seem like a comic book to many people today, it's a tangible way for many people to express their experience of psychomachia, or spiritual struggle. The difficulty, from Kempe's point of view, is that most people don't possess enough spiritual awareness to realize that they're in the middle of a battle for their own souls.

    Questions About Good versus Evil

    1. In what forms does Kempe encounter evil? How about good?
    2. In what ways is the struggle between God and the devil external, rather than strictly within a person's soul, in this work?
    3. Why does Kempe get into a fight with Jesus about damnation? What does she have a hard time understanding?
    4. Why does Kempe seem to be most concerned with correcting people who curse or swear?

    Chew on This

    Kempe struggles with the concept of damnation because it challenges her belief that God is all good.

    Kempe struggles personally with the sin of lechery but seems more worried about those who swear or curse, since that is a direct offense to the body of Christ.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    In The Book of Margery Kempe, there are a lot of things working against a woman like Kempe, who's trying to live her vocation. Kempe's a wife and mother—not a virgin who can take the veil and live a "proper" religious life as a nun. It's totally ridiculous to many people that Kempe wants to pursue a contemplative life, and they do as much as they can to restrict her. She has to bargain with her own husband to get some sexual freedom, and she has to get his permission to travel. Eventually, she's put under a vow of obedience to her confessor, who has the right to restrict her movements and relationships. Civil authorities team up with the clergy to pursue her as a heretic and arrest her. And ultimately, Kempe submits herself to God's will, which often seems hard.

    Kempe deals with it all like a boss, enduring slander, jail time, and threats in order to pursue her spiritual goals at home and abroad.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. What types of constraint does Kempe fear the most? Are they the ones you would expect?
    2. In what ways does Kempe experience freedom in her relationship with God?
    3. How does Kempe's relationship with her husband constrain her desire to live the contemplative life? In what ways is it a help to her desires?
    4. Why does Kempe have to get the "letter and seal" of the Archbishop of Canterbury? In what ways will this buy her some freedom?

    Chew on This

    Although Kempe has to negotiate with her husband in order to live as she wishes, her marriage is ultimately helpful in attaining her spiritual goals.

    Kempe suffers greater challenges to her freedom in England than anywhere else she travels in Europe.

  • Versions of Reality

    In The Book of Margery Kempe, our heroine kind of lives in two worlds. She pretty easily slips from her world into Christ's, often by means of a "trigger"—the appearance of a handsome man, for example, or a turn of phrase during Mass that makes her think about Jesus and his suffering. Once there, she interacts almost physically with figures from scripture, participating actively in Christ's life from conception to resurrection.

    These are intense experiences, and they often make life very difficult for Kempe. She finds herself isolated from companions, barred from hearing famous preachers who can't stand her screaming and crying when she's on a mystical trip. Still, these forays into Christ's life are crucial to Kempe's spiritual growth and are very precious to her. In her eyes, they're marks of favor from God and rare opportunities to experience things that would normally be forbidden to her.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. In what ways do Kempe's direct experiences of Christ's life shape her spirituality?
    2. In what ways are Kempe's direct experiences of Christ's life considered a mark of favor? In what ways are they troublesome?
    3. How does Kempe's practice of affective piety influence her interactions with the world around her?
    4. Why does Kempe feel the need to enter imaginatively into Christ's life when she already has direct communications with him?

    Chew on This

    Kempe enters into the life of Christ imaginatively as a form of devotion and love, to bear witness to his suffering and to show compassion by suffering with him.

    Kempe's direct participation in Christ's Passion and death helps her to develop compassion for those who suffer and offer forgiveness to those who have wronged her.

  • Love

    Kempe's encounters with God and other human beings are all about love, but the way she talks about all of this can be confusing if you're not up on your mystical lit. Erotic love, something that Kempe tries to leave behind after her conversion, still provides the vocabulary Kempe uses to talk about God's love for her soul. It sometimes feels weird to see the images of familial love mixed with sexual love, but it's meant to help us understand the all-encompassing nature of God's love for humanity.

    Caritas or charity trumps all forms of love in The Book of Margery Kempe. Caritas is more than simply giving charity: it's also a virtue, the ability for humans to love God for his own sake, and to love other human beings for the sake of God. Kempe wants to perfect this form of love, and we think she comes pretty close, even if her companions have a hard time loving her—or forgiving her odd behavior—for God's sake.

    Questions About Love

    1. What does Kempe learn about showing love for God? In what ways does she learn to best please him?
    2. In what ways do Kempe's dealings with her husband show (or not show) the virtue of charity?
    3. Why does Kempe feel that she must be released from "paying her conjugal debt" to her husband?
    4. How do Kempe's tears prove her great love for God and for humanity?

    Chew on This

    Kempe wants to remain chaste so that she can direct all of her love toward God, not primarily because she feels that marital sex is sinful in and of itself.

    Kempe would prefer to show her love for God with a grand gesture, such as martyrdom, rather than by suffering a lifetime of humiliation for his sake.